Review: SoundOn Media-i210 2.1 Digital Wireless iPod Speakers
After several years of steady growth and improvement, culminating in the release of Griffin's impressive Evolve, wireless iPod audio systems slipped backwards in 2008; many past options disappeared entirely from stores, and developers struggled with the question of how to make wireless interference-generating iPhones work with their devices. The results have been less than impressive -- there still isn't an iPhone-ready wireless speaker system, and nothing has emerged as an improvement on the Evolve formula.
In recent weeks, however, two new wireless audio systems arrived at our offices for testing. Jensen has debuted the JiSS-585 ($130), a lower-priced challenger to Evolve, and a new company called SoundOn has released Media-i210 ($249), a completely different wireless 2.1-channel audio system. It’s important up front to understand the approaches that these companies have taken, and what you get for the respective prices. Note that the JiSS-585 has also been released in Canada under the Centrios brand as Black Pearl Wireless Speakers, where it sells for a higher price; our rating should be adjusted downwards in territories where it sells for more.
Just like Evolve, the JiSS-585 is a two-channel audio system with a wall-powered iPod charging dock, a remote control, and two completely portable wireless speakers. The idea is that you keep the speakers charged by leaving them on the unit’s base, then pull them off when you want to listen to them elsewhere in your home. If you’re in the same room as the dock, you can use the remote control to change tracks, play or pause audio, and even navigate the iPod’s menus. Take the speakers outside of the dock’s room, and you’re limited to controlling speaker volume and power: each speaker has its own illuminated blue knob, which doubles as an on/off switch.
SoundOn’s Media-i210 actually includes three speakers—two satellites and a subwoofer—plus an iPod Dock Connector attachment. Here, you chain the two satellites to the subwoofer with included cables, connect the subwoofer to a wall outlet, and listen to your iPod’s music wirelessly using the bottom-connecting dongle. Changing the volume or track is as simple as using the iPod’s integrated controls; it is, in essence, this system’s only remote control. Three buttons on the subwoofer also adjust the unit’s volume, as well as creating the wireless link between the speakers and the dongle. Notably, SoundOn also sells separately a $50 USB-based dongle called USBConnect-Tx that can attach to your computer, letting you broadcast PC or Mac audio to the speakers rather than iPod audio.
While both of these systems use wireless audio technologies, they’re very different from one another in terms of approach. appeal, and execution. Users considering JiSS-585 are those who need the convenience of wireless speakers that can be moved anywhere, while those looking at Media-i210 would want the ability to use speakers in a stationary position while taking the iPod anywhere. Because the iPod sits on JiSS-585’s charger, you can feel comfortable that it will keep on playing for as long as the batteries last in the globe-shaped speakers. But in Media-i210, the Dock Connector dongle drains iPod battery life—very significantly on recent nanos, to the point that we wouldn’t recommend using them with this system—while the speakers are perpetually charged. In both cases, you can cheat around their limitations: you can always dock the speakers in JiSS-585 to keep them charged and playing, or connect your iPod via an included audio cable to the Media-210 for a wired, less power-hungry connection. These connections may defeat the wireless features of the products, but they do let you keep playing music without as much dependence on batteries.
Given the considerable price disparities between these systems and Evolve, it’s not a surprise that they’re not all in the same ballpark sonically. The JiSS-585 is markedly inferior to Evolve in sound quality, producing less full-bodied sound under optimal conditions, and truly FM radio-quality audio when you move the speakers more than a room away. We’d call it a speaker for kids who like but can’t afford Evolve, and due to the flat sound, we wouldn’t recommend it to older or more discerning listeners; it’s only worthy of its rating on the basis of price.
Media-i210 was more of a surprise. Due to its three speakers, but particularly its subwoofer, it actually bests the more expensive twin-driver Evolve in the bass department; it is a genuinely, and surprisingly good-sounding audio system. That said, the price difference between these systems is mostly attributable to fewer, and lower-quality components in the SoundOn unit. Unlike Griffin, which used relatively deluxe metals and plastic parts that both looked and felt substantial, Media-i210’s speakers are made from lightweight fabric and plastic, ultimately feeling a little cheap. SoundOn doesn’t pack any of the batteries or advanced wireless components found in Evolve, either.
From a wireless transmission standpoint, the three systems are similarly in different leagues. While Griffin promises a 150-foot broadcasting distance and achieves 100, the other two companies promise 100 and fall short: the Media-i210 falls off at between 60-75, its signal degrading into digital blips and then silence, with the JiSS-585 becoming increasingly staticy after 30-40 feet, dropping off entirely by around 60. Evolve, with its stronger signal and ability to multicast to multiple additional speakers, is really in a league of its own relative to other options, but it’s also more expensive.
The only other performance issues worth noting were these: we found the SoundOn system a little more difficult to initially pair than the Jensen one, as the iPod dongle and system both have “PAIR” buttons and need to be synchronized the first time you want to hear music. By contrast, the Jensen system demonstrates one of the many smart design decisions Griffin made with Evolve, expecting that you’ll switch its speakers on and off individually when you want to use or stop using them. Evolve just turns everything on and off for you. Jensen’s switch system feels like a budget approach to a budget-priced alternative, and won’t thrill more demanding users.
Our similar ratings for the JiSS-585 and Media-i210 are slightly nuanced. The JiSS-585 strikes us as a small step down from Brookstone’s Wireless Music System both visually and in audio performance, but at an attractively lower price; we consider them worthy of the same flat B rating. By comparison, the Media-i210 offers better sound and a different sort of wireless audio experience in a package that’s a little underwhelming physically, a little too expensive at full MSRP, and a bit too power-demanding for current nanos. For $50 less, as it can be had if you shop around, it’s a solid option if you’re looking for a way to use your full-sized iPod as a remote for speakers on the other side of the room.